Before the public relations geniuses were spinning news, the master promoter P.T. Barnum, the self-ascribed “Prince of Humbug” was convincing audiences that he had what they wanted to see. In The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Melanie Benjamin uses the historical backdrop of the nineteenth century and the drama of the Civil War to resurrect one of Barnum’s most famous acts – General Tom Thumb and his wife – together, a total of a little more than five feet of entertainment.
Unlike Charles Stratton, dubbed Tom Thumb by Barnum, Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Bump had a life before the circus – she was a school teacher at age 17, but longed for more than the sheltered life her parents were prepared to give her on the farm. Hearing of how Barnum had made Jenny Lind famous, Vinnie contacted him – after a short stint on a riverboat sideshow – expecting her talents in song and dance to make her fortune. Benjamin uses Vinnie’s voice to reenact her struggle to become noticed for something other than her size.
Eventually, Vinnie met Barnum’s star sideshow act – Charles Stratton – taken in by Barnum as a two foot boy at age five, taught “to smoke at seven, to chew tobacco at nine…” Seeing an opportunity to create another act, Barnum encouraged the courtship and General and Mrs. Tom Thumb became the new tour attraction.
As Vinnie tells her story, Barnum has an imposing influence over her and everyone else in her life. Drawing from the real Lavinia’s diaries, Benjamin notes that her sources list dates and events, but Vinnie
“doesn’t discuss her feelings…she never shares any disappointments, any frustrations…The challenge was always to separate the humbug from the truth”
So, Benjamin creates them for her; Barnum becomes the unrequited love of Vinnie’s life, and Mrs. Tom Thumb becomes, under Benjamin’s pen, a feisty, adventurous, and determined woman – and the marriage – just part of the act. Later, her sister (even smaller in stature) joins the group, leading to a tragic (and true) turn in the tale when she dies in childbirth.
Throughout the story, Benjamin inserts the Civil War as it is happening; her short blurbs introducing each chapter, a reminder of the times and a cruel counterbalance to the world of Barnum. Queen Victoria and President Lincoln carry on with the reality while Barnum sustains the fantasy. At times, Benjamin’s first person narrative seems stilted, with the dialogue needing more realism and less perfunctory chatting – and I often skipped over it.
If you can work through the excessive minutia (pardon the pun), The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb offers a unique perspective on the era and a sympathetic view of a vulnerable woman.